This is my story of growing up as a child of the 1980's and teenager of the '90's, in upstate New York. It's a story of pets, and vacations, and unexpected adventures. It's a story of the roundabout ways that life can lead you home. However, it's mainly a story of Place. Whether lived or merely vacationed in, the places and events that shaped my life have become some of my most cherished memories...
Synopsis of The Forests I Called Home: A Memoir of Living, Leaving, and Loving the Woods and Sea:
Growing up, the author always knew she was an unusual child, a tomboy and loner who daydreamed about living in the wilderness. When she was ten years old her parents built a log cabin in the forest, which she explored with her rowdy but loveable dog, Rocky, and faithful horse, Sally. Those years sparked a fascination with the natural world, and a search for a place to belong. Her travels took her from the Adirondack Mountains to a remote island in Maine, and to the coast of Cape Cod, where she lived in a campground with her pet ferret, Riptide.
This is a story of growing up feeling different from the rest, and of solitary journeys that strengthened the author's faith in God and sense of self. It's a celebration of the special places that make us who we are, and of childhood dreams that come true in surprising ways.
Many scenes in The Forests I Called Home take place at this house that my parents built in 1988.
My dog, Rocky. Photo taken about 1988, the summer the house was built.
Sally, my first horse, an off-the-track Standardbred pacer. She also plays a big part in The Forests I Called Home.
Maine Cottages on Monhegan Island, one of the places I describe in the book.
At Rock Harbor, Cape Cod, MA. I lived in Cape Cod the summer I was 19, which I describe in the book.
Excerpts from The Forests I Called Home:
Late that afternoon, we set out for Putnam Pond, even though the storm seemed to get worse as we headed north. A gray, gloomy dusk had already settled on the campground. As our old truck’s headlights revealed flooded campsites, Dad complained about going camping in the pouring rain. He complained even louder as he cranked open the pop-up camper, his clothes drenched, as Mom held a flashlight and I stayed out of their way.
Rain or not, Putnam Pond was my refuge that week, an escape from the despised day camp. The next morning, I woke up to sleepy birdsong, and weak sun peeking through the pop-up’s vinyl windows. The storm was over, and we were finally ready for another week in the woods.
When Dad went out to the truck to get the campstove and our breakfast fixings, a swarm of chipmunks escaped from the truck’s covered bed, like circus clowns tumbling from a tiny car. A shredded plastic bag of shelled peanuts lay as evidence of their night’s work. As they squeezed out an open window here, a rust hole there, and out the newly opened tailgate, Dad jumped away, shouting, and Mom shrieked. Meanwhile, I doubled over, laughing hysterically. Welcome to the Adirondacks!…
...Between the camping and fishing trips, and the hours spent in the frog swamp, nature had become a part of my life that I never questioned. That was just how it was. I figured that every kid built traps out of a string, stick, and shoebox so they could attempt to capture a squirrel for a pet. And didn’t other kids ever discover a chipmunk loose in the house one night, resulting in a chase involving a shrieking mother, hysterically laughing daughter, and cussing father fl ailing at the intruder with his daughter’s butterfly net?
My favorite movie was The Wilderness Family. It was about a city family who moved to the mountains, built their own log cabin, and had exciting adventures. The only way they could get back to civilization was in a pontoon airplane. Best of all, the two kids didn’t have to go to school, because they could do their lessons at home! I thought that sounded like Heaven! I wanted to learn all about how to live that way, so I studied Dad’s “Outdoor Life” and my “Ranger Rick” magazines.
Sometimes, Dad complained about how a lot of the woods around Saratoga were being chopped down and replaced by housing developments and apartment buildings. It made me sad, so I wrote a letter to the President saying that it should be stopped. Several months later, I got a typed letter thanking me for my concern, signed by President Reagan himself! Dad told me that he probably never even read it and his signature was only a stamp, and he grumbled, “Oh, great! The FBI’s going to come and arrest us because our eight-year-old is writing to the President!”
“Lou!” Mom scolded him. “Don’t tell her that!”
Of course, the FBI never showed up, but the suburbs continued to sprawl as the open land was built up and settled. Dad said that it couldn’t happen around our house, because it was legally said to remain “Forever Wild” land. But he didn’t sound so sure. He and Mom began talking about buying land up in the mountains, so we could build a log cabin. Just like the people in the movie.
Dad assured me that we weren’t going to be like the developers in the city, because there was plenty of land to go around up in the Adirondacks. We were only building one small house, not a whole neighborhood of them. And I couldn’t wait.
I was in fourth grade when Dad bought those ten-and-a-half acres in Hadley, NY. I felt so proud as I wrote a class composition about our land, about how my hands ended up smelling like frogs and toads, and about the time when I heard a mountain lion crashing through the trees! Dad told me it was really just a chipmunk running through the leaves, but of course, I knew better.
Over the winter, thick packets began to arrive in the mail back home, and I liked to sit on the floor and look at them as Mom and Dad discussed each one. They came from different log home companies and were filled with black-and-white drawings of houses and their floor plans. My favorite was called the "Bennington." It was a big farmhouse with a sort of rounded roof like a barn, and a covered front porch with hanging baskets of flowers.
"No, that's too big for us," Dad said. "And I don't like the gambrel roof."
I was disappointed, but continued to study the books, fascinated. I wondered if I could get a job drawing floor plans someday.
Once, Dad heard about a log home company that was almost up to Canada. He and Mom seemed excited to tour their "display models" and look at all their different floor plans. We drove for hours one cold day, and arrived at a rambling log building that looked more like a plain garage than a cabin.
It was like a big open warehouse, with displays of windows and roofing and different shapes of building logs. Pictures everywhere in the vast building showed massive log mansions on perfect green lawns - so unlike our weedy lawn back home - or big, modern chalets with windows that covered an entire wall of the house. My parents looked disappointed.
"This isn't exactly what we have in mind," Mom said politely to the salesman.
"We're looking for something small, and rustic," said Dad. All the way home, he grumbled that he had driven us all the way up to the Canadian border for nothing.
That spring, they finally found our dream house at the New England Log Homes company in Lake George. Mom and Dad looked impressed as we toured the model house. There were colorful flowers on the front porch, and old fashioned-looking multi-paned windows. The log walls had been what they called "skip-peeled," with some of the bark still attached. It was like an old-time cabin with a covered porch, and upstairs bedrooms with sloping ceilings.
I waited in the car as Mom and Dad signed some papers, and bought a new log cabin kit.
When fourth grade finally let out for the summer, I lived for the weekends when we left the suburbs. The yellow truck was packed with a picnic lunch and a cooler of drinks, my nets and buckets and plastic dinosaurs, Dad's tools and lumber and Mom's romance novels, and whatever else my parents had brought to keep themselves occupied.
I felt just like my heroes, Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. They were two long-dead men whom I knew nothing about, except that they wore animal skins and furry hats and lived in the wilderness. I wore jeans and a puffy gray vest instead of a buckskin suit, but on my head I wore my prized possession: a fake-fur coonskin cap with a real raccoon tail that hung down the back. I had found it for sale in the souvenir shop the time we went to Magic Forest amusement park in Old Forge, and I begged Mom to buy it for me. I think she regretted that. I wore it when I was catching frogs in the swamp. I wore it when I played on the jungle gym. I even wore it to bed. If Mom hadn't stopped me, I would've worn it to school. For some reason, she didn't want me to wear it in public, and always suggested that I leave it at home "so it wouldn't get lost."
Those woods became mine during that summer of 1987. As Mom and Dad laid out stakes where the new house would be built, I explored the forest in my muddy workboots and mountain-man clothes. Davy and Daniel would've been proud of me. I discovered a brook that contained some strange salamander-like creatures of some species that I'd never seen before. In a small clearing closer to the house, I lay on the stream's grassy bank and studied the water bugs skating on the surface. There, I built a wobbly footbridge out of some scrap lumber that I filched from Dad's pile. I often found the long-fingered tracks of raccoons in the slippery black muck beside the stream, so clear that I could see the marks of their claws. Further downstream, closer to where it ran under the road, I discovered the huge root of a fallen tree sticking straight up in the air. Dried mud was still attached to the root, which loomed six feet above me, and I pretended that it was my cabin by a river.
Further up our logging road, I found an old outhouse on the border of our land. It had no door, but was still strong, built of weathered gray boards and a green fiberglass roof that allowed spooky emerald light to enter. Dad figured that it must've been there since the days when the land had been logged, but now it was nearly overtaken by the saplings and raspberry bushes that had grown up around it.
That land was my own private wilderness, and I never wanted to leave.
My daydreaming ended when Dad bought me my first horse the winter of 1990. I was twelve then, and the horse was an uncertain age; some people guessed 17, while others figured she was more like 25. But she was still a beauty, a retired Standardbred pacer whose racing name had been “Sally de Baron.” After we made just a few painfully short weekend visits to the farm where she stayed, Dad enlarged the goat pen into a proper corral. Sally finally came home on a rainy Easter weekend three months later.
However, those winter visits were not the first time that we’d met. I first saw Sally one summer day the year before. Dad and I went to his co-worker’s farm to buy two pet mallard ducklings, and I spotted a shiny bay mare swatting flies in the field behind the big old farmhouse.
I still think of that as one of the happiest days of my life, when the horse’s owner asked if I’d like to ride…of course, yes…and she rummaged around the big rickety barn for a saddle and bridle. She couldn’t find the tack and I’d never ridden bareback, but I didn’t care. The horse, which hadn’t been ridden in awhile, took off trotting over the dusty field as I clung onto her tangled mane, yelling to her to “whoa.” I bounced along on her bony back, struggling not to fall off in front of Dad and his co-worker. Soon the horse settled down and walked calmly under the hot sun. I relaxed and loosened my grip on her mane.
“She’s a natural,” I overheard Dad say. He sounded proud.
“And Sally seems to like her,” said the lady. “I got her off the track awhile ago, but my kids aren’t interested in her anymore. I’d like to find her a good home…”
They continued to talk as they watched us circle the field, and I didn’t want the ride to end. But as I reluctantly slid off her back a few minutes later, I had a feeling that she and I would someday be together forever.
On the way home I stroked my new pets, the two fuzzy ducklings that I named Squeak and Quack. They were cute, but riding Sally had been the most special part of the day, a day that I knew I’d never forget.
From my diary:
Wednesday, January 10th, 1990
…Somehow on the way home, Daddy and I got to discussing horses and he told me that Sally’s owner might git (sic) red (sic) of her. Daddy said he made an offer to buy her but he didn’t tell me what she said. I have a mystry (sic) to solve. Am I getting a horse or not?
Sunday, January 14th, 1990
I have solved the mystery! I am getting a horse. Sally is a 17-year-old Standardbred off the Saratoga Harness Track. She is bay and is 14.2 hands. I am getting her for $250.00 including the horse and the saddle and bridle. Sometime next weekend I will go out to ride and groom her. She is a fun horse to ride even though she is old. Further reports will follow in later entries.
Saturday, January 20th, 1990
Today I got my new glasses. Then we went to the farm. Sally’s coat was long and it was cacked (sic) with dry mud that I very easly (sic) got out. Her forelock was full of burrs and I got almost all of them out. I picked her hooves. Her tail was incredably (sic) matted with burrs and Daddy got most all of them out. I rode her a lot all bareback but she had a snaffel (sic) bridle so I used that for all the other rides that I took on her. That was much easier to use than pulling on her mane.
Three months later I stood beside Sally in the damp backyard corral, eager to go to work on her with my new grooming tools. I was so happy that my dream had come true that I didn’t notice that she looked rather…ordinary. The fluffy, fine hairs of her forelock puffed up over her forehead, unlike the rest of her mane, which lay straight and smooth against her neck. Her shaggy fur was a dull brown, her long tail tangled and matted with burrs. Her legs seemed too long for her pony-sized body, and her nose bore a scarred bump from an old paddock injury. But after a few days with my shedding blade, her old winter fur fell to the ground in greasy sheets. The slick red coat that I remembered from the summer before magically appeared under my brush. I combed her mane and picked the burrs from her tail, and she once again resembled the sleek racehorse of her younger days.
I could hardly concentrate on my schoolwork, and I spent all of my free time riding and brushing my new horse. I just couldn’t get enough.
After my last day of school that June, I looked out my window at the sun-dappled woods, filled with anticipation of the following months. That was the beginning of a wonderful summer.
Luzerne was a small lake, covering just over 110 acres, but very pretty. A towering pine tree rose above the brush and sand of tiny "Ivy Island," a good place for a picnic and a swim. The low, rounded form of Cobble Mountain rose from the opposite shore, and the wooded lakeside's deep green summer leaves hid the vacation camps that overlooked the water. I couldn't believe that I had fought so hard against moving to a place like that!
For the next five years, canoe trips replaced Hadley's horseback rides; Lake Luzerne's open water replaced my wilderness. The canoe became my new companion as I spent hours paddling the lake. It became as familiar as our old land as I nosed into its wooded bays and shallows, swam from Ivy Island, and explored the marshy inlet that led to Second Lake. I liked nothing better than to slip past the noisy town beach and leave the shouting and splashing behind. Early in the spring, Dad car-topped the canoe down to the area where people could chain up their boats near the beach, and there it stayed until the ice began forming by the water's edge.
On summer evenings, the orchestra from the nearby music camp gave free concerts in the park beside the water. I wasn't a fan of the type of music they played, but it was kind of nice to paddle home across the still lake, the sunset fading into dusk, as the strains of classical music drifted into the night. Bats swooped and fluttered over the yards as I headed home for dinner, paddles and damp life jacket over my arm, my hunger sharpened by the hours on the lake.
One day, I decided to take up sailing. Over the following winter, Dad and I built our own plywood sailboat from some plans that I'd found in a library book. I never had many chances to sail it, though, so the finished boat slowly rotted away as it lay upside down in the backyard.
Several years later, I found a very strange-looking sailboat in the local classifieds. A Snark Triumph trimaran, they called it. It appeared to be a dark blue bathtub connected to two pointed side hulls with flat white decks to sit on. It wasn't sleek and salty-looking like our homemade boat, but how could I pass it up for 250 dollars? Dad and the seller struggled to wrestle the heavy thing on top of Dad's van.
That odd little boat taught me to sail that summer (with the help of the instructions in "Better Sailing for Boys and Girls," an old book that I studied many times.) Though the boat was only nine feet long, it was wide, and never threatened to tip once. By summer's end I could take it anywhere on the lake, plowing through wind and white capped waves that would've kept the canoe on shore. As I learned its simple controls, the tiller felt like a living thing under my hand. I tacked and jibed and tore across the lake, the wind billowing the lateen sail. The multi-hulled boat left quite a wake as it sped along, overtaking the Sunfish sailboats from the music camp across the lake. I was hooked!
The canoe spent a lot of time chained to its tree that season, during one of the best summers that I spent at Lake Luzerne.
I still remember the sight of those red taillights disappearing into the night as my father left me alone in the nearly deserted campground. I can still feel the clammy salt wind blowing in from the bay, hear the crickets, and see the tree shadows made by the full moon…
May 18th, 1997. I was nineteen years old that summer, my first time living on my own. Nickerson State Park had accepted me as a “host camper” for the summer, which meant that I got a free campsite in exchange for doing some work around the park. I considered that a good trade, even when I learned that I was assigned to clean the shower building.
I arrived in Cape Cod with a place to live, but no job prospects. Dad said that he expected I would call him, begging to come home, within a week. But I had a pile of resumes and 250 dollars in my suitcase, and I was going to prove him wrong.
The cold evening wind pierced through my light jacket as Dad and I arrived at the campground. He insisted on helping me put up the cabin tent, but it was soon too dark to finish setting up camp, so he helped me stow everything else under the picnic table. After asking me one more time if I wanted to go through with this, he got in the van and pulled out. I was alone, yet it wasn’t a bad feeling. It was a sense of adventure and freedom, as I realized that I had to answer only to myself.
As I wrote in my journal in the light of the citronella candle, I knew that it would be the summer of my life. I was content.
Th e first few days remained raw and windy. As the rain turned the campground into a muddy mess, I shivered nonstop and piled on several layers of clothes. When the weather finally cleared, I went out exploring my new home on my battered pink mountain bike, which was my only transportation. I rolled down Brewster’s pretty country roads, passing several enticing antique shops and stately old sea captains’ houses. Crosby Lane, across the road from the campground entrance, was my favorite place to ride. It passed the Crosby Mansion, a magnificent yellow Victorian house with rambling verandahs and acres of lawns that overlooked the public beach on Cape Cod Bay. At low tide, the mudflats stretched for miles, exposing hundreds of horseshoe crabs and squirming creatures caught in the puddles.
Soon afer I arrived, a man set up camp in the site across from mine. He introduced himself as Bill, a weathered, muscular man with shaggy hair and a silvery gray mustache. He said he was a contractor who was building a home for a wealthy client a few miles away, and mentioned that he needed someone to help clear the lot and build a road. I remarked that I needed to find a summer job, and so, I ended up working for him.
As I look back now, I realize that it could’ve been a foolish thing to do. The situation sounded like the plot of a serial killer or rapist movie, but I was at the age where I thought that I was invincible. I figured that those things could never happen to me.
Bill was telling the truth, though, and offered a legitimate job. I went with him in his truck every day and we worked in the woods until I found a permanent job. I felt so cool, so independent as we rode through Brewster in his big gray pickup. Though I didn’t have a license, sometimes he had me drive the powerful truck in the wooded lot where we worked. Every day my arms became sore and scratched as I tossed branches and logs into Bill’s backhoe. The damp mornings grew into muggy aft ernoons, and I sweated in the dappled forest sunlight as I helped lay out plastic mesh and rake the gravel on the new private road. I couldn’t complain, though. Each morning, Bill made fresh eggs and bacon for breakfast, and grilled steak and hamburgers with corn on the cob for dinner. He was a great cook.
One evening, Bill pulled into my campsite on a gleaming turquoise Harley-Davidson, its spotless chrome glinting in the dusk. I had never ridden on a motorcycle before, but when he offered me a ride, I knew that I couldn’t pass up the chance. We ended up going all the way out to Provincetown, the town at the tip of Cape Cod, where we cruised down the crowded main street. It had a festive, carnival-like atmosphere, as lights and music drifted from the open doors of bars and shops. Later as we thundered back down the Mid-Cape Highway towards home, the rotating beam of the Highland lighthouse reached through the darkness in endless circles. Suddenly, all that mattered was the warm wind in my face and stars above, and the roaring motorcycle beneath us. I knew that I would never forget that evening, when I felt like I was riding through a dream.